Economists are cautioning that the Canadian economy has entered one of the deepest recessions in our history. Our country is not alone in this. The impact of COVID-19 has put the global economy on track for a “new Great Depression.”
Will this current crisis exacerbate current inequalities and bring in a new round of violent austerity measures? Or will people power force through a program to reduce inequalities and move us beyond a system that prioritizes profits over all else? Will we move away from a politics that continues to produce multiple and intersecting crises — economic, health, humanitarian, and climate? Can we embrace alternatives like the Green New Deal to build a more equal and sustainable world going forward?
Economic recessions happen when there is a lull in economic growth. Currently, our economies are built to need about 3 per cent growth annually. The chief economist for Export Development Canada has predicted the Canadian economy will contract by 9.4 per cent this year. Recessions have real consequences on people’s daily lives, particularly for the vast majority of people who are not benefiting from an economic system that sends money upwards to the richest 1 per cent.
Many Canadians were already living in precarity — one-third without more than a month’s worth of savings — before COVID-19 shutdowns led to a million job losses in March and nearly two million in April. The economic impacts of COVID-19 have been highly unequal, exacerbating existing inequities. Black, Latin American and South Asian Canadians are disproportionately likely to experience income losses due to the economic fallout from COVID-19, survey results show. Furthermore, women have been hit hard, serving as vulnerable, devalued workers in the care economy while also being responsible for household and childcare duties.
In recent decades, particularly since the onset of the neoliberal era in the late 1970s, governments in Canada and around the world have embraced austerity measures when facing economic contraction and job losses — rolling back labour rights and making drastic cuts to public spending including healthcare, education, social security programs. The global economic crisis of 2007–08 made it harder for those already struggling on low wages to stay afloat. COVID-19 has exposed the impact that decades of austerity politics have had. In Canada, for example, we have seen the number of hospital beds per resident drop from 6.75 per 1,000 people in 1976 to 2.5 per 1,000 in 2018.
Now, as provinces are reopening parts of their economy, and as governments begin planning to manage the financial consequences of COVID-19, it is critical that we weigh in on how we want to recover and rebuild our economy. There may be a push to get back to a pre-pandemic “normal” — but “normal” was already a crisis.
Before the pandemic hit, wealth inequality in Canada was at record levels. The two wealthiest Canadians (David Thomson and Galen Weston Sr.) have the same combined wealth as the poorest 30 per cent of Canadians.
“Normal” also means the continuation of colonial violence in this country, most visibly expressed in the RCMP invasion of unceded Wet’suwet’en territory over opposition to the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Many Indigenous communities still lack access to clean drinking water, safe housing, and adequate medical care.
“Normal” is a climate crisis, where many parts of the world are already on fire, experiencing extreme weather events while global carbon emissions continue to rise unabated.
Fortunately, we have an alternative to this fossil-fuelled, neoliberal capitalist normal: the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to transform our social and economic systems on the scale that science and justice demand in order to meet the twin challenges of the climate crisis and inequality in all its forms (economic, gender, social, racial).
A Green New Deal recognizes that only through expanding justice and equity for all will we be able to address the roots of the climate crisis and embrace solutions that not only safeguard us from the climate crisis but also improve the living conditions of the majority. A Green New Deal means jump starting the transition to 100 per cent renewable energy, instead of bailing out the oil industry, which is experiencing major losses as the global economy experiences one of the deepest plunges in the demand for energy since World War II.
It also means that we recognize and act on the housing crisis, as Canada has become one of the least affordable housing markets in the world. COVID-19 has shown us that not providing safe, affordable housing is a major collective public health and human security issue. We can address this by building thousands of affordable low-carbon public housing units, alongside retrofitting existing buildings to be carbon free. These programs will help decarbonize our economy and will require labour, which can be done through good unionized jobs, a win-win for the majority.
A Green New Deal also means upholding Indigenous rights and sovereignty, ratifying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and moving beyond our extractive, colonial economy that continues to ram fossil fuel pipelines and extractive projects (even during the pandemic) through Indigenous territories without consent.
And it means compensating fairly and truly valuing the low-carbon work that we have now learned is truly essential to the safety and wellbeing of our communities — work done by care workers, health providers, teachers, grocery store workers, delivery people and more. This is an opportunity to address the multiple, intersecting inequalities of gender, race, and class while creating a truly sustainable economy.
Before COVID-19 kept us isolated from one another due to physical distancing measures, a growing number of young people across Canada were working to build public support for an intersectional Green New Deal for Canada. For many of us, this crisis has reinforced what we already know from our lived experience — our current economic system is leading us down a path of destruction.
Even in this pandemic, the rich are getting richer while undermining the planetary systems that we need for our survival. We have grown up watching as governments systematically chip away at public services, from welfare and redistributive policies to childcare, health, education, and eldercare. We have watched successive governments fail to meet climate targets and fail to tackle inequality, instead seeing a rollback of people’s basic rights to food, shelter, health, and education, and the erosion of the rights of workers and the environment.
According to Statistics Canada, one of the many consequences of growing up under neoliberal austerity is that “income and wealth inequality are far worse for millennials than any other generation.” This inequality, combined with the projections of what the climate crisis holds for our present and our future, means a growing number of young people are tired of being told to accept half measures, and tired of federal climate policy that leaves us on track for 3 C of warming. We are done accepting a system that values some more than others and is willing to sacrifice certain people in order to maintain economic growth that has, for the past decades, only benefited those at the top.
This is why, under the banner of Our Time Vancouver, I and many other millennials have begun to mobilize around and demand a bold and ambitious wide-scale Green New Deal for Canada. While the strategies and tactics for winning may have to shift, the COVID-19 crisis has clarified why it is necessary. We must ensure that our actions to resolve this crisis do not fuel another one, and instead set us on a path towards recovery and resilience from the intertwined crises of inequality and climate change, the result of economic and social systems deliberately designed and maintained by the richest people and most powerful corporations in the world.